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Pique and Ramos cross the line, yes, but their excellence will be enshrined

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Do Pique and Ramos' extracurricular activities hurt their play? (3:33)

Alejandro Moreno believes Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos must balance their competitive fire and defensive responsibilities. (3:33)

You never usually need many extra reasons to mention Fernando Hierro, other than the fact that he's one of the preeminent post-war footballers, deeply underrated outside his country and something of a phenomenon as a competitor.

There was a spell after his retirement when Hierro, in name a central defender but capable of playing in midfield, held Spain's all-time scoring record with 29 goals. Meaning that, while he still played for La Roja he was, in fact, their Pichichi -- the national team's top goal scorer.

If you'd like some context for that, consider that Hierro -- his last name just about translates as "Iron man" -- has been overtaken only by modern-day greats: David Villa (59), Raul (44), Fernando Torres (38) and, most recently, David Silva (30).

More? Kenny Dalglish, by any standards a gold-plated European striker, holds Scotland's goals record with 30 in 102 appearances. Hierro hit 29 in 89; one goal fewer, but at a better per-game average.

We'll come back to the Real Madrid great and current Real Oviedo manager in a moment. For now, let's use Hierro as a means of looking at two of La Liga's most controversial, most loved, most hated, most gritty and most competitive footballers.

Yes, you've guessed it: Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos.

During yet another week that set them against each other, both in terms of being on opposite sides of the increasingly bitter "Clasico divide" and of them being splashed all over the media because of their running-sore spat, Hierro is at least one thing that unites them.

Ultra-Catalan, ultra-Barca man that he patently is, Pique nonetheless consistently admits that it was the austere, elegant, ruthless Bernabeu legend who was part of his visual education as a sweeper/centre-half.

Pique looked up to and studied Hierro, even as the Madrid captain led his team to repeated Champions League victories, won Clasicos and, generally, stuck it to Barcelona.

"He played for our eternal rival, but when I watched him play I saw things that I admired," Pique has said. "I tried to use him as a mirror and use my play to reflect back what I saw in Hierro."

It is an admirable trait of Pique that, while his vision of how to defend the Barca identity may be obstinately one-dimensional, he's not only happy to look at "enemy territory" for inspiration; he'll also admit that publicly.

That's healthy.

As for Ramos, he currently plays with No. 4 on the back of his shirt as homage to his fellow Andaluz.

When Madrid's warrior-leader arrived at the Bernabeu in 2005, as Florentino Perez's first Spanish signing and for a healthy sum, he was a raw young buck.

Ramos had made just 35 Primera Division starts, not more than an amuse bouche of an aperitif to a decent career, but he immediately started talking -- privately and publicly -- about his ambition to emulate Hierro.

Ramos had it in his mind to aim at the great man in every sense, from leadership to trophy wins, iconic status, playing out from the back ... and scoring.

When it comes to goal totals, the old man leads the two "young" bucks: Hierro's career total of 130 is nearly twice as much as Ramos' and over three times that of Pique. Which still means that between the three defenders, they've won more than 65 trophies and helped their various teams to do that via hitting the net nearly 250 times.

"Pique's got astonishing quality for a player at the back, he can do frightening things with the ball. But he thinks like a striker. Some people try to compare him and me, but I think he's got much more quality because his goals are scored with the instinct of a centre-forward," Hierro has said when questioned.

When Ramos moved to Madrid, the former club captain was not one of those traditionalists who sneered at the gauche, long-haired youngster who so clearly wanted to repeat his feats.

Indeed, Hierro said on the day of Ramos' signing: "This is a kid who's earned his chance at Madrid because of his attitude and performances and it's satisfying to me that it's a young Spaniard who'll inherit my shirt number."

But as his Bernabeu dauphin has gone on to surpass almost every expectation except his own, Hierro has subsequently commented: "Sergio will go down in Real Madrid history. He's a footballer of incredible magnitude and for what he's not only done, but what he'll potentially still achieve he's got it within his power to become the greatest defender our club's ever had."

However, it's not just the overwhelming positives that link these three men. Although Pique is nowhere near the level of indiscipline the other two have registered, nor is he a stranger to a red card. Sent off eight times in his senior career, that's somewhat dwarfed by Hierro's 14 and, now, Ramos' 22.

These are three steely leaders, three brutally competitive men who, in certain circumstances, will let their will to win strip away good resolutions. They will be the ones to produce last-ditch challenges, to try to impose some physicality on a situation or to attempt to intimidate a referee. To excess, sometimes, obviously. But it is both an inherent and essential part of their makeup.

There is, too, something about their non-footballing character that links the three. They believe in the right to free speech. Whether they believe themselves to be right all the time or simply believe they have the right to light a few fires, I think, is something that will always split peoples' views.

Right now, Ramos and Pique are the twin "Spin Doctors of Social Media" as far as Spanish football is concerned. They snipe, jab, sneer, spar and generally give the country more reasons to divide down the middle -- not politically or socially, but via the colours of the Clasico. In Spain, it's a footballing San Andreas.

Not only did Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat not dominate a footballer's private life by the time Hierro retired, Facebook was still two years away from existing.

I'm not very sure, honestly, that Hierro would have bothered with them even then.

But, like the two young bucks, Hierro was independently minded, bolshie, stubborn as a mule and prone to causing a row in a phone booth. When Perez was intent on pushing Fernando Morientes out of the club, it was Hierro who stood up to him and made it clear that the squad was unhappy.

When Madrid won the title and were unhappy about certain arrangements for the celebrations in 2003, it was Hierro who led his squad of players off the pitch after just one lap of honour and refused the board's instructions to go out again.

In full shop-steward mode, he called a strike that night and told the club that they wouldn't be celebrating the title at the Cibeles fountain in the city centre.

Only after a long night of deliberations and negotiations did he call that strike off but these examples, and more, led the Madrid president to cancel a verbal agreement of a contract renewal and show one of Los Blancos' all-time legends the door at the end of his deal.

When he was bumped, clumsily, out of the club, Hierro was told: "We don't like your behaviour."

When Hierro spoke to the press about what happened he said: "People say that Raul and I were always in the middle of the rows between the squad and the club. However, I want people to remember that we weren't operating on our own behalf -- we were representing the group. I'll go head-to-head with anyone to defend Real Madrid, to defend my team.

"We feel things, things damage us and for that reason I'll stand up and tell it as it is," he added. "We are simply representing our beliefs and our work -- no need to give it more importance than that."

In general, that's how I view Pique and Ramos. It's long, long established that they get on sufficiently well for Spain to have combined and won two tournaments.

It's equally established that while these two are not, repeat not, enemies when they work together for the national team, it's also the case that you don't have to be bosom buddies or simpatico to function brilliantly in a sports team.

But when they throw sparks at each other, when Pique goads his "brother by another mother" in the media (because they really ain't all that different in what motivates them), when Ramos reprimands the Barca player while stomping off the pitch on Sunday night, all they're really doing is releasing their inner Hierro.

They "feel" things, their fighting spirit makes them think that it's on their shoulders to "defend the colours," to defend the club. Necessary or not, well-judged or not, this is what we get, what we will always get.

Just for the record there is no question, absolutely none, that Ramos' challenge on Lionel Messi was a red card offence. Nor that it was utterly unnecessary. Nor that it might, if the dominoes all fall in sequence, actually cost Madrid the title. (I don't think that everything will pan out that way, but it might.)

Yet, even in that instance, the net balance of what he has given to Madrid will be heavily, overwhelmingly, in his favour. Ramos committed a folly that undermined his "I'm going to have to learn" remarks after being sent off exactly a year ago in the Clasico by the same referee.

But what stands true, not just now but across his career, was his less-publicised remark that night 12 months ago when señor Hernandez Hernandez red carded him at the Camp Nou.

"If I'd known that we were going to win 2-1 with 10 men I'd have been OK with being sent off in the fifth minute," Ramos said.

Winners accept collateral damage to themselves. Hierro, Pique, Ramos. It comes with the territory of leading, winning (armband or not) and what Hierro calls "staying true to myself."

There is far, far more that unites them than divides them. In fact, there's probably, really, only the colour of their chosen "favourite" shirts that truly separates these three men.

Hierro, now that the dust is settled, isn't just recalled as one of the true, heroic greats of Spanish football. He was anointed as the technical director of the Spanish FA. It was during his reign there that Vicente del Bosque was appointed and the World Cup was won.

Hierro's misdemeanors? Forgotten. His excellence, his trophy record, his elegance, his winning mentality? Enshrined forever.

So it will be with Pique and Ramos. Yes, they sometimes cross the line. Yes, they seem to permanently squabble with each other. But they are all, all three of them, made of the right stuff.